Quarantine Diaries: Reflections on a writer’s legacy

Artist in Residence

I am currQuarantine Diaries illustrationently using some of the time I am spending inside my house – covid, toxic air and all that – to earn some additional money doing critiques for manuscripts through an agency that provides this service.
Editing work is a study in the good, the bad, and the ugly. The manuscripts can be anything from “back to the drawing board, please” to “ohmygod where has this writer been all my life”.
What they have in common is that they are usually by writers starting out, writers who are new or at least newish to their craft, and who want the feedback of a professional crit. I’ve had to wrestle with basic writing – with literal sentences – which kept making me skid to a halt and re-read the thing four times and still remain unsure of what exactly the writer was trying to say.
One time I got the second book of a planned trilogy without any synopsis of what went on before to help situate me. Predictably that made me drown in the thing because there was literally no way to make sense of it without being very familiar with Book 1.
I got another MS which clearly springs from utter love of the material but which has been through the editorial mill before and the writer dutifully rewrote the entire thing to someone’s fiat. It is clearly not the story that he wanted to tell in the first place and the poor tale was left a little ill served by this. I had a lot to say about that manuscript because, One, there was a lot there that I thought was problematic in some way, and Two, he made me CARE, hard enough to write a critique that ran to over 10,000 words.
Then I got a gift, a gem from a guy whose first fricking novel this is, and I hate him, because it is perfect. In fact, I have girded my loins and am prepared to use any personal connections I can muster to get this novel seen by editors who need to see it because I honestly believe I am holding a future award-winner in my hands.
And today I got another MS in the mail, from somebody who asked for me by name as their editor which means that he read at least SOMETHING I’ve written and liked it well enough to trust my hand on his own story. That’s both humbling and exciting at once.
These things make me think.
I was a rank newbie, once, and I had writers I adored whose opinions on my work meant the world – some of you guys already know my Roger Zelazny story, the one where I got to meet him literally months before he was gone, and where he left me with words that are engraved in gold in the back of my mind and to which I return every time I falter in my own career arc or in self doubt. And here I am now, somehow, sitting in a similar chair for somebody else.
I feel the responsibility. I do. When I say that I plan on putting that one novel before an editor in a position to make it published… it occurs to me that it is almost fantastic, something out of pure
fiction, that I am in a position to do this for somebody. I am on a rung on this ladder where I am suddenly able to reach down and help someone else take a step or two upwards, or at least give it a good try.
When I was growing up, I knew I was going to be a writer. Getting to this point – being a semi- SENIOR writer, someone with a foothold in the industry and more than three million published words – that wasn’t even in the picture. That was ahead in the mists of time. It was a dream beyond the dream. It was, to borrow a precious word from a precious movie, ‘inconceivable’ to that child that I once was (and yes I DO know what that word means…).
It both exhilarates and scares me to find myself standing here.
There are people out there now, trudging up those same thorny roads that I trod, who think that someone like me is at a destination. The truth of it is that I see as much road ahead of me as behind and sometimes it’s frankly scary to have this kind of trust reposed in me, in my opinions, in my critiques, in what I think and what I say.
I mentored a young writer from the tender age of 13 when I saw him shine like a tiny little rough diamond from within the pile of pretty pebbles who were his peers – and he flew with the wings that I helped give him. He won school awards for his writing, beating out seniors when he was barely a sophomore in high school, and I couldn’t be more proud of him than if he’d been my own. He grew into a fine young man and we’re still in touch. Whether or not he becomes a published author doesn’t matter anymore. I taught him things, he learned them. That goes into the future with him now. It’s part of him. He’s part of the legacy I leave behind.
Writers leave different legacies. For some, it’s one perfect book and an enduring adoration of generations of readers. For others it’s hundreds of books, and a reflection of complete glory. For some, and apparently I am in this group, the legacy also involves taking a writer who is on their way, and giving them a hand up over a rough spot, or pointing out a signpost they might have missed. I am proud of that.
I am not a great writing guru, not everything I say is true, my opinion is not always completely helpful – but that’s the nature of an editorial hand. You work with the stuff that you are handed, by the writer, and you hope that your input makes it into something better. With luck the writer spreads wings and flies, and you know that you had a hand in releasing that great bird so that others can see and admire it.
Excuse me, I have work to do. I’ve got a MS to read and edit. I don’t know yet what kind of a bird it is going to turn out to be.


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